At the commencing of OTA’s this past Tuesday, Eagles Head Coach Pederson told the media that as it stands, one of the two starting cornerbacks on the outside is Jalen Mills. The seventh round pick from 2016 was thrust into the front lines last year and would go on to play a crucial role in the Jim Schwartz Defense during his rookie year…and just one offseason later, he will be a leader on the outside.
Mills has come a long way since turning heads in training camp and fighting for a roster spot. Now, a starting corner for the Eagles, Mills will be lining up against the league’s most talented wide receivers week in and week out…but it’s something he grew used to in 2016. Many question just how well Mills developed last year…and this article will examine just that.
The journey of the Green Goblin started in week one. Leodis McKelvin was forced out of the game with an injury, opening the door for the LSU product to get his first taste of NFL action. With the Browns stacked up deep inside the five, the intention was to air it out down the sidelines. Mills reads the eyes of the quarterback, picks up his man and goes stride for stride with Pryor. The ball was eventually overthrown, but the coverage by Mills was impressive considering it was one of his first ever snaps. The one thing that did stand out on this play was that he was playing with his back to the ball…something Schwartz would seek to eradicate from his game later in the year, but the instincts were certainly there.
Just one week later, Mills would play in 83% of defensive snaps and line up against future teammate Alshon Jeffery. You can read a full breakdown of that matchup below, but to save some time…here are some things we learned about the Green Goblin after he faced his first top receiving threat at the NFL level.
He played with a lot of emotion. Something that would act as both a blessing and a curse. There would be several occasions such as the one below, where Jeffery would pounce on an overzealous rookie to shrug off a tackle, or force him to trip after trying to do too much at the line of scrimmage. The veteran savvy of Jeffery would only light a fire under Mills however, who would come back with two huge plays in the endzone later in the game.
While the Eagles play a lot of press coverage, Mills rarely uses his hands at the line of scrimmage. If he’s able to pick up his receiver cleanly and get close through the stem of the route, he’s often able to come up with a big play or “blanket” coverage, just as we see below. His aggression in the endzone was only fueled by the earlier incidents, and it was the first time that fans caught a glimpse of the playmaker that was clawing to unchain itself.
Against the Steelers, Mills would face his next big task..and it was one that would very much act as a wake up call. While the rookie showed good instincts at the start of this play, he flashed something that arguably set him back during preseason, hesitation. Mills seemed to panic once in deep water and turned his back to look for the ball too soon…which is what sparked Schwartz’s comments to the media in the weeks that followed. He was nearly two steps behind his receiver as he hit the endzone on what would have been the third big play that game given up by the young corner.
Those same nerves or what simply felt like a rookie mistake almost cost him again working out of the slot. Mills was itching to get off the line with leg movement before the snap and it was something that was capitalized on by Coates. The wideout led Mills outside before swinging back inside to make the reception, knowing that the block was incoming. Mills looked a little overwhelmed on this play and it cost him.
This game, if anything showed that Mills still had a long way to go. He gave up the two biggest plays of the day and very nearly gave up a couple more while surrendering two penalties. He led the team in tackles once again and was clinical in his technique..but the nerves that plagued his first preseason game against the Bucs, seemed to make a return…but not for long.
His next big developmental moment would come two weeks later, as the Eagles faced the Redskins. After the first quarter, Mills looked like a completely different corner and despite the lack of pass rush, was often able to hold his own.There were hitches along the way, some big plays given up and some looks he’d like to have back..but against one of the league’s most renowned speedsters, there was only so much he was capable of preventing given the circumstance.
The following play, in comparison to what we saw in week 3, was a statement. As the season progressed, Mills seemed to channel his emotions far better, and was able to take a calm and methodical approach to each play…meaning that instances like this, he’s able to see past the shifty footwork of a certain former Eagles wideout, always staying ahead of his man and wrapping him up.
This is another great example. Mills picks up his man after starting from the off, forces him onto the tightrope down the sideline and picks up the curl extremely well. That in itself is in my opinion a HUGE improvement. In the early stages of the season, Mills was giving up way too much separation on comeback looks due to playing with his back to the ball, allowing wideouts to pick up easy yardage…and that alone played a huge factor in why Mills so often led the team in tackles.
This play may be the perfect example. Mills simply does NOTHING after Jackson attempts to get past straight away, instead forcing the speedster the long way round and pressing him down the sideline. By always retaining contact, he’s able to get over the top of the play much easier, keeping leverage in his favor.
A couple of weeks later, the Eagles would face the Cowboys in a game that felt extremely experimental from the perspective of Jalen Mills. Could the ultimate underdog handle slot responsibilities? It’s the most difficult position to play in the defensive backfield, but combined with his emergence of confidence in zonal looks, it was interesting to see how he’d fare. The big thing to jump out, was just how often he’d end up around the ball.
While beaten on the route below, Mills does well to tail off from his receiver and make a saving tackle. It’s that kind of awareness that had been improving each and every week and was finally on show against the Cowboys.
As the heart of the season neared, it felt like all of the small things were beginning to iron themselves out. Mills had previous tendencies of planting his feet into the ground or trying to be too physical early on, leading to receivers such as Alshon Jeffery reaping the rewards. However although Mills still asserted a tough stance, he was able to dissect the breaking route far quicker and actually get a clean launch to come back over the top of his receiver and close off the passing lane.
Then, came the arrival of swagger. The trademark finger-wag, the emotional outbursts after making a play. All of the nerves, excitement, adrenaline and emotion that would hurt Mills previously, were now being pushed down deep and exerted after the play had finished…and that process started against Atlanta, where the seventh round pick lined up against none other than Julio Jones.
You could feel in the play of Mills that he rose to the occasion. He realized the caliber of receiver he was going up against, and it’s almost like a switch was flicked. The coverage was strong, the tackling was hard, and the physicality at the line of scrimmage was something previously unseen. Mills was on a mission to make sure he let Julio know that this game wouldn’t be a walkover…and that’s exactly what he did.
The same level of aggression in press looks would serve Mills well throughout the remainder of the season. While jamming isn’t his forte, when asked to simply shadow his receivers, Mills proved himself worthy of a starting role time and time again. His length is a great asset when forcing quicker receivers into tight situations, or taking the top off of the route. Mills doesn’t have the speed to keep up with some of the faster wideouts in the league, but if he can knock them before the stem opens, or at least close off an inside break…he has every chance of making a play should he open with an advantage.
The young corner did have problems recovering from errors early on in the season. Be that a sporadic tackle or simply not having enough time to pick up the lost ground, that began to change as the latter stages of the year approached. As we can see below, Mills makes a slight error of judgement, allowing a receiver to run straight by him out of the slot. However his speed when closing is actually eyebrow raising. Not only that, but he leaps over the top of the much taller wideout and is able to jarr the ball loose in a play that showed what happens when athleticism meets a season of development and technical improvement.
One of his most impressive showings would actually come against Jordy Nelson and the Green Bay Packers. Feeding off of a surge in confidence, Mills would have none of whatever Nelson was trying to feed him.
The next two plays for me showcase just why Jim Schwartz loves Mills so much. The LSU leader tips the pass, only for Nelson to haul in the falling pigskin. Understandably, Mills was frustrated after the play and looked to reach boiling point. Screaming and tensing his arms, Mills stepped away from the play infuriated. My initial instinct was even though this was a fantastic effort by Mills thwarted by sheer luck, he let the emotions get the better of him. We’ve seen it with OBJ before along with the likes of Josh Norman..that once things get to THAT level of frustration, bad things happen. What happened next however, blew my mind.
It appears that Mills doesn’t suffer from short-term memory..and wanted to make a statement. The next time he was lined up against Jordy Nelson, he embarrassed him. Nelson went to try and fool Mills with a slow cut outside..but the rookie cornerback threw him backward upon contact..leaving Nelson on the ground and most likely stunned. THAT is how you turn in-game emotion into productivity..and it’s something even veterans struggle with at times. Incredibly impressive…and EXACTLY what Schwartz loves. Tenacity, fire and emotion.
The remainder of the season was filled with the same level of aggression. Pass breakups became more fluent, and his comfort lining up against big name receivers only grew stronger. Yes, his flaws lie at the line of scrimmage and that hasn’t changed…but the errors drastically minimized in the games to come. Mills was able to fight back after losing routes and was no longer losing himself in trying to beat his own hesitation before the receiver.
Jalen Mills might not be the perfect receiver, but what you see in week one, and what you see in week 16 of last season are two completely different cornerbacks. One who now understands the importance of keeping his eyes on the quarterback, and can now channel all of his emotions into the play itself as opposed to the moments before the ball is snapped. The ceiling remains high…and with another season under Undlin and Schwartz, it’s clear to see why the Eagles regard him as a starter at such an early stage in the proceedings.
The Green Goblin truly rose from the bottom of the depth chart during Training Camp last year and was able to develop on an almost weekly basis. You could see the personality begin to run through the Midnight Green jersey, the pride and confidence of a leader begin to blossom, and the talent begin to shine brighter than the yellow embedded deep into his LSU background. The future is bright for Jalen Mills, and it all starts now.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports